I will be offline for a few days, so I’m reposting this item from a year ago.
Today is the
21st 22nd anniversary of my retirement from full-time employment at a defense think-tank. (I later, and briefly, ventured into part-time employment for the intellectual fulfillment it offered. But it became too much like work, and so I retired in earnest.) If your idea of a think-tank is an outfit filled with hacks who spew glib, politically motivated “policy analysis“, you have the wrong idea about the think-tank where I worked. For most of its history, it was devoted to rigorous, quantitative analysis of military tactics, operations, and systems. Most of its analysts held advanced degrees in STEM fields and economics — about two-thirds of them held Ph.D.s.
I had accumulated 30 years of employment at the think-tank when I retired. (That was in addition to four years as a Pentagon “whiz kid” and owner-operator of a small business.) I spent my first 17 years at the think-tank in analytical pursuits, which included managing other analysts and reviewing their work. I spent the final 13 years on the think-tank’s business side, and served for 11 of those 13 years as chief financial and administrative officer.
I take special delight in observing the anniversary of my retirement because it capped a subtle campaign to arrange the end of my employment on favorable financial terms. The success of the campaign brought a profitable end to a bad relationship with a bad boss.
I liken the campaign to fly-fishing: I reeled in a big fish by accurately casting an irresistible lure then playing the fish into my net. I have long wondered whether my boss ever grasped what I had done and how I had done it. The key was patience; more than a year passed between my casting of the lure and the netting of the fish (early retirement with a financial sweetener). Without going into the details of my “fishing expedition,” I can translate them into the elements of success in any major undertaking:
- strategy — a broad and feasible outline of a campaign to attain a major objective
- intelligence — knowledge of the opposition’s objectives, resources, and tactical repertoire, supplemented by timely reporting of his actual moves (especially unanticipated ones)
- resources — the physical and intellectual wherewithal to accomplish the strategic objective while coping with unforeseen moves by the opposition and strokes of bad luck
- tactical flexibility — a willingness and ability to adjust the outline of the campaign, to fill in the outline with maneuvers that take advantage of the opposition’s errors, and to compensate for one’s own mistakes and bad luck
- and — as mentioned — a large measure of patience, especially when one is tempted either to quit or escalate blindly.
My patience was in the service of my felt need to quit the think-tank as it had become under the direction of my boss, the CEO. He had politicized an organization whose effectiveness depended upon its long-standing (and mostly deserved) reputation for independence and objectivity. That reputation rested largely on the organization’s emphasis on empirical research, as opposed to the speculative “policy analysis” that he favored. Further, he — as an avowed Democrat — was also in thrall to political correctness (e.g., a foolish and futile insistence on trying to give blacks a “fair share” of representation on the research staff, despite the paucity of qualified blacks with requisite qualifications). There are other matters that are best left unmentioned, despite the lapse of 21 years.
Because of a special project that I was leading, I could have stayed at the think-tank for at least another three years, had I the stomach for it. And in those three years my retirement fund and savings would have grown to make my retirement more comfortable. But the stress of working for a boss whom I disrespected was too great, so I took the money and ran. And despite occasional regrets, which are now well in the past, I am glad of it.
All of this is by way of prelude to some lessons that I gleaned from my years of work — lessons that may be of interest and value to readers.
If you are highly conscientious (as I am), your superiors will hold a higher opinion of your work than you do. You must constantly remind yourself that you are probably doing better than you think you are. In other words, you should be confident of your ability, because if you feel confident (not self-deluded or big-headed, just confident), you will be less fearful of making mistakes and more willing to venture into new territory. Your value to the company will be enhanced by your self-confidence and by your (justified) willingness to take on new challenges.
When you have established yourself as a valued contributor, you will be better able to stand up to a boss who is foolish, overbearing, incompetent (either singly or in combination). Rehearse your grievances carefully, confront the boss, and then go over his head if he shrugs off your complaints or retaliates against you. But go over his head only if you are confident of (a) your value to the company, (b) the validity of your complaints, and (c) the fair-mindedness of your boss’s boss. (I did this three times in my career. I succeeded in getting rid of a boss the first two times. I didn’t expect to succeed the third time, but it was worth a try because it positioned me for my cushioned exit.)
Patience, which I discussed earlier, is a key to successfully ridding yourself of a bad boss. Don’t push the boss’s boss. He has to admit (to himself) the mistake that he made in appointing your boss. And he has to find a graceful way to retract the mistake.
Patience is also a key to advancement. Never openly campaign for someone else’s job. I got my highest-ranking job simply by positioning myself for it. The big bosses took it from there and promoted me.
On the other hand, if you can invent a job at which you know you’ll succeed — and if that job is clearly of value to the company — go for it. I did it once, and my performance in the job that I invented led to my highest-ranking position.
Through all of that, be prepared to go it alone. Work “friendships” are usually transitory. Your colleagues are (rightly) concerned with their own preservation and advancement. Do not count on them when it comes to fighting battles — like getting rid of a bad boss. More generally, do not count on them. (See the first post listed below.)
Finally, having been a manager for more than half of my 30 years at the think-tank, I learned some things that are spelled out in the third post listed below. Read it if you are a manager, aspiring to be a manager, or simply intrigued by the “mystique” of management.